May 6th, 2010, 5:14 pm · posted by Tony Saavedra, Register investigative reporter

The battle over whether taxpayers should be allowed to see Orange County public pension data finally landed today in Superior Court.

Faced with the prickly question of whether to release the names and pension amounts of retirees making more than $100,000–information that other Superior Court judges have said is clearly public–Judge Luis Rodriguez seemed to lean toward splitting the baby: perhaps giving out the information but replacing the names with a “unique identifier.”

Rodriguez also seemed willing to entertain the idea of putting a gag order on any information released to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a pension reform group that is seeking the data.

Attorney Timothy Bittle, representing CFFR, told Rodriguez that he didn’t know enough about how the group planned to use the information to address the idea.

Attorney David Lantzer, representing the Orange County Employees Retirement System, said the citizen-watchdog group could look into any irregularities in the pension payments by using the identifiers instead of names.

Maybe.

But it appears to The Watchdog that without names, there would be no way for journalists (or citizens) to search out retirees double-dipping by working other county jobs. Or retirees charged with job-related crimes, as The Register found when it dug through the CalPERS data.

During today’s hearing, Rodriguez seemed concerned that releasing the information would violate California Government Code 31532, which prohibits the release of “sworn statements and individual records” of retirees. That’s the argument OCERS has been making, but it’s been rejected by Superior Court judges in other California counties. Rodriguez also was concerned that releasing the pension data would be an undo invasion of privacy.

Bittle argued that the the names and pension amounts are not the types of records covered by the government code and that state law required it be released as public information — regardless of how CFFR plans to use it.

While Superior Court judges in Contra Costa and Stanislaus counties have ruled that the pension data is clearly public — akin to public employee salaries–and must be released, no one has taken the case to appellate court, where a judgment would become precedent.

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